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2nd January 2000
Past Times
Stories of the 1915 riots
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Patriot not traitor

A great-grandson recalls

It was on my Achchi's knee that I first heard of the 1915 riots. To my young ears, it was just another of grandma's tales. The significance of those turbulent times dawned on me only later, when as a youthful law student I came across the proceedings of the Field General Court Martial of the British Raj, which probed those riots.

Achchi's husband - my grandfather - had been a teenager when his own father Edmund Hewavitarne (younger brother of the Anagarika Dharmapala) along with Namanidewage Albert Wijesekera was hauled up before the drumhead Court Martial presided over by Lt. Colonel R.L. Muspratt-Williams of the Royal Garrison Artillery and charged with treason and shop-breaking.

The normal laws had been suspended. Civilians were tried on the orders of Governor Robert Chalmers under the Army Act. Charge 1 read: "The above-named accused (Hewavitarne and Wijesekera) are charged with treason, in that they, at Colombo, on or about the 1st June, 1915, did levy war against Our Lord the King, contrary to Section 41 of the Army Act."

The riots, of course, were a reaction in Colombo to what had just happened in and around Gampola where the island's Sinhalese and Muslims had sharp disagreements over the use of loudspeakers outside mosques.

A mob of Sinhalese had broken into and looted a Muslim-owned shop, "Crystal Palace" down Keyzer Street in the Pettah. Hewavitarne and Wijesekera were accused of leading that mob.

The Court Martial was held the very next month. The Attorney General appeared for the British Crown. Two legal luminaries of the time, Frederick Norton and Allan Drieberg led the defence team. After many witnesses were heard on both sides and within just three days of trial, the accused were found guilty of treason.

The charge of shop-breaking was dropped, and the accused sentenced to ''penal servitude for life''. The death of my grandfather at the age of 42,1eaving my grandmother a widow at 31,was traced to the traumatic experience he would have undergone at that tender age, seeing his father incarcerated first at the Welikada Jail, later in Jaffna - and then succumb to the deadly disease of the tropics at the time, enteric fever contracted in prison. The Jaffna Prison 'hospital' was just another cell. The patient lay on a mat, on the floor, with no attention and no suitable treatment. When recovery was hopeless and only then, was the patient transferred to the civil hospital in Jaffna.

Five days before his death, his brother Dr. C.A. Hewavitarne was permitted after having to petition the Colonial Secretary, to attend to his dying brother. But it was too late.

Edmund Hewavitarne died on November 19, 1915, five months after he was sentenced by an army officer to a life of "rigorous imprisonment".

A large gathering honoured a patriot, not a traitor, at his funeral. A 13-page petition of appeal by his widow Sujata Hewavitarne together with petitions and affidavits by leading Buddhist monks and lay persons from different communities, and by Mallika Hewavi-tarne (mother of Edmund and the Anagarika) was sent to London addressed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Andrew Bonar Law asking that Edmund Hewavitarne's name be cleared. The petitions were upheld. Sir Robert Chalmers KCB the Governor and Commander-in-Chief in and over the lsland of Ceylon was recalled to Britain for his mishandling of the riots.

The new Governor, Sir Henry William Manning apologised on behalf of the British Empire to Mrs. Edmund Hewavitarne for the miscarriage of British justice. He and Lady Manning became personal friends of the Hewavitarne family.

Blood-soaked chair, a warning

Nilika de Silva talks to family members of Edward Henry Pedris

" I ask to be executed by a firing squad composed of Punjabis as they are non-Christians and Asians, not Europeans," said Edward Henry Pedris as he faced death.

A noble son of Sri Lanka who fought for Independence from the British rulers and laid down his life for his pride and patriotism, Edward Henry Pedris, just twenty-six years at the time, was taken to his execution sans his medals and decorations.

He was shot dead at 6 a.m., on July 7, 1915, his funeral was held under martial law at midnight and his body was not handed over to his family. It was the only burial not to be recorded in any official register, since 1910.

The Ceylon Observer of July 5, 1915 records the death sentence passed on Pedris. He was charged with treason, shop-breaking, attempted murder and wounding with intent to murder.

The only son of D.D. Pedris, one of the richest men in Ceylon during the turn of the century, Edward Henry was born on August 16, 1888. He studied at the Colombo Academy, known today as Royal College and S. Thomas' College.

Although his father hoped he would one day take over the family businesses, the son insisted he wanted to join the Army. He joined the Town Guard and due to his outstanding abilities soon became its leader.

Perhaps it was his horse Lally, (purchased from a visiting Russian Prince) that irked the Britishers who resented his privileged position in life. Perhaps the British felt that Edward and his brother-in-law Albert were colluding with the Germans.

On May 27, 1915, the Muslim-Sinhala riots broke out in Gampola. A Buddhist perahera which despite repeated warnings took a route past a mosque, was said to have been attacked by Muslims. Rumours spread like wildfire first to Kandy and then to Colombo that the Muslims were attacking the Dalada Maligawa.

It was to quell the mob and maintain law and order that Edward Henry is said to have opened fire, but the British used this as an excuse to imprison him.

"What I admire about him is that at a time when he had a comfortable life, he chose to be in the National Guard and sacrifice his life for what he stood for," the great-great-grand-nephew of Edward Henry Pedris, Chandrin Wimaladharma, an attorney-at-law said.

Today greatest among the monuments in his memory is the Isipathanaramaya Temple in Colombo 5, built by his father D.D. Pedris.

Recalls the Chief Priest at the Isipathanaramaya, Kihimbiye Vijitha Nayake Thera, "The then Chief Incumbent Dangedera Saranapala had requested D.D. Pedris Mudalali to build a temple for the priests who came from Galle to study at the Vidyodhaya Pirivena."

Edward Henry's mother Mallino became an upasika after the death of her son. His father too lost interest in his ancestral home on Turret Road, sold it and devoted his life to religious affairs.

Edward Henry's brother-in-law Albert Wijesekera died in Jaffna prison. During the riots his brothers-in-law were also imprisoned with D.S. Senanayake and Edmund Hewavitarne.

"After shooting my grand-uncle, they had left his blood-soaked chair in front of those people to frighten them," Mani, the great-grandniece of Edward Henry Pedris said.



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